W2W4 previews the week’s Premier League action by highlighting its most compelling storylines …
Arsenal’s trip to Anfield could get ugly
Drawing 1-1 with Brighton & Hove Albion is clearly not the end of the world, particularly with a still-patched-together defence and a rather bigger test looming, but it was perhaps the nature of Arsenal’s performance on the south coat that might be troubling. Arsenal were worryingly passive in that game, with the faint whiff of a side whose willingness to impress the new boss has faded a little.
Unai Emery’s management of the game was questionable too, removing Alexandre Lacazette at a curious time and moving Stephan Lichtsteiner, who had already cost them a goal with an error, into a more central role. All of which adds up to the sense that this is a crucial period in Arsenal’s season, which in turn makes it a really, really bad time to be playing the best team in the country.
Liverpool seem able to bend games to their will at the moment, winning in third gear where necessary and blowing teams away when they fancy it too. Newcastle were dismissed with little more than a flick of the hand on Boxing Day, Wolves held at bay like an expert boxer keeping an opponent in check with shrewd use of the jab, and before that the outclassing of Manchester United.
During that Newcastle game, there was a shot of some Liverpool fans as news of Manchester City’s defeat to Leicester came through, the looks on their faces giddier than children opening presents the day before. You feared for them, because football is a game that can very quickly kick you in the pants when you think all is well, but this weekend you fear more for Arsenal. This one could get ugly.
Does Guardiola need to ‘change the dynamic’?
Two defeats in three games is easy enough to write off as a blip. Three defeats in four, though, this is when it starts to look like there’s something wrong. Whether it’s as simple as the absence of Fernandinho, or the natural complacence that comes with being that good for the past 18 months, or something deeper, more fundamental … who knows.
“What we have to do is try to change the dynamic to win games and make good performances,” said Guardiola after the loss to Leicester, but if by “change the dynamic” he meant altering something significant in how City play, that might be a mistake. After all, these defeats have not negated how good City were for the first 15 games of this season and the whole of last, but more importantly it might not even be possible to change the fundamentals of their football in such a short space of time.
This could be City’s central weakness: that their football is so tightly planned and structured that when things go wrong, they don’t know what to do. And therefore, they don’t know how to change. If that’s true, Guardiola’s best bet might be to carry on as they were before and hope. Either way, they have to beat Southampton on Sunday to even make the game against Liverpool in a few weeks relevant to the title race.
What can Solskjaer fix next?
With the title out of reach, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must now have two main aims in his time at Manchester United: Champions League qualification is the most obvious one, but perhaps more important in the long term might be trying to fix the damaged confidence of their most valuable assets.
He’s made a good start with Paul Pogba, two encouraging performances in the past two games raising hope that the Frenchman might consistently live up to his potential at Old Trafford. Is Alexis Sanchez next? The Chilean has been backtraining, which we know about from his Instagram post set to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” so could he return for United’s home match against Bournemouth on Sunday? And is he another faltering star that Solskjaer could works some magic on?
Will Fulham vs. Huddersfield qualify as football?
The very resistible force versus the extremely movable object. Huddersfield’s trip to Fulham at the weekend is an encounter between a side who can’t stop conceding goals and one that can’t score them: David Wagner’s men have just 12 goals to their name and the Cottagers have shipped 43, so who knows what’s ultimately going to happen here.
There’s a strong chance this game could descend into farce of some description, but what sort of farce? Highly entertaining slapstick, or a nadir in quality levels which will confirm that these two will certainly be playing each other next season in the Championship?
Is it time to drop Hart?
Speaking of sides who have leaked goals this season, Burnley are not far behind Fulham. Sean Dyche’s side, who previously traded on their solidity, have let in a whopping 41, already two more than they conceded in the whole of last season as they finished seventh. That of course is probably not down to any one individual, but it is tricky not to look past the fact that Joe Hart wasn’t there last term but has played every game this.
Even if this hasn’t been all Hart’s fault, is it time for Dyche to make a change in goal? Tom Heaton would probably have gone to the World Cup if not for injury last season, and Nick Pope did: the latter is back playing again after a shoulder injury, and frankly either might be a better bet than Hart.
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